Date – July 1- November 18, 1916
Conflict – World War I
Participants – British and French Armies vs German Army
Location – Between the Somme and Ancre Rivers in France
Interesting Facts – One of the bloodiest battles in recorded history. Marked the debut of the tank on the battlefield. Among German troops on the defensive front was a young Corporal…Adolf Hitler
With Germany penetrating deep behind Allied lines and the Battle of Verdun well under way, it became apparent that the Allied forces needed to mount an attack on the Germans. By doing so, they would allow themselves the chance to recover lost ground, as well as potentially draw German reinforcements away from their offensive in Verdun. The Somme was a critical region for both sides, representing the German defensive front and lost ground that needed to be regained for the Allies. Retaking it would be no easy task, however. The German forces had long held control of the area, and had steadily been strengthening defensive armaments in the region. To complicate matters, the offensive would require an uphill assault through muddy, barbwire ridden trenches while the German defensive positions enjoyed a clear view from above.
Following several days of Allied artillery bombardment, Allied forces mounted their assault. The first day saw massive casualties for the allies, with nearly 60,000 men wounded or killed. The German defensive positions were clearly too strong to attack head on, and yet the assault continued. In the following weeks the Allied forces suffered unimaginable casualties while German forces remained relatively unscathed in comparison. Faced with the indisputable truth that if they pulled out here the devastation would only be worse in Verdun, the Allied command chose to continue the assault. It was not until the tank made its debut on the battlefield that Allied forces began to gain considerable ground. Initially catching unsuspecting German forces off guard, the tank rolled right over the barbwire and mud holes that had slowed ground troops, allowing the Allies to push into the German lines. The tanks were fraught with mechanical problems and were still prone to artillery fire, however, and were not enough to finish the job. Although the Allied forces failed to break the German defensive lines, they succeeded in pushing the German army back and out of the Somme region, as well as in taking some pressure off the forces in Verdun. Having sustained casualties of over 650,000, the German army never fully recovered from the assault.
BATTLE OF SOMME
The Battle of the Somme was a World War I battle fought from July 1 until November 18, 1916. It was one of the most bitterly contested and costly battles of the Great War, with the British suffering 58,000 casualties on the first day. The Battle of the Somme started with a main Allied attack on the Western Front in an attempt to break through the German lines at the Somme River in northern France and put an end to 18 months of trench stalemate. Young Adolf Hitler fought in the battle and was wounded.
|This is what happened to a French town|
By late December 1915, it had been decided that the following year simultaneous offensives would take place; the Russians attacking in the East, the Italians in the Alps, and the English and French on the Western Front. Also in December 1915, General Sir Douglas Haig replaced General Sir John French as Commander-In-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force. Plans for the joint offensive on the Somme had not begun to take shape until the Germans launched the Battle of Verdun in February 1916. With the French committed themselves in the defense of Verdun, the burden of the Somme offensive shifted to the British Expeditionary Force.
The assault on the German lines had been preceded by an eight-day preliminary artillery bombarment with the purpose of destroying all forward German defences. Seventeen mines had also been planted in tunnels beneath the German front line trenches. Then the attack was launched upon a 30 kilometer front, north and south of the Somme River between Arras and Albert. Commanded by Sir Henry Rawlinson, 13 British divisions from the Fourth Army struck north of the Somme River, and 11 divisions of the French Sixth Army south of the river.
The German trenches were heavily fortified and the British cannons were not accurate enough as some of their shells failed to explode. When the artillery bombing began, the German soldiers simply moved underground and waited. At 7.30 am, on July 1, 1916, whistles blew to signal the start of the attack. After the heavy bombarment, the Germans simply left their bunkers and took their positions in the trenches.
Burdened by 50-pounds of equipment, the 11 British divisions soldiers walked towards the German lines across no man’s land, stumbling on and surmounting barbed wire obstacles as they went. An officer blew his whistle again and their walk broke into a trot, then into a race as they approached the first German trench line, bristling with lethal bayonets, yelling, charging into the voracious maw of death. The machine guns opened fire, mowing down the first wave of British valient soldiers, then the next. Finally, the third wave managed to get to the first line as machine gun nests were blown away with hand grenades. Jumping into the trenches, a ferocious and desperate close combat fighting with bayonets, knifes, and lineman shovels ensued; hearts were stabbed, bellies ripped opened, necks hacked.
It was a baptism of fire for many in the British volunteer armies as they suffered catastrophic losses. Whole units were wiped out. The first two weeks of the battle had degenerated into a series of disjointed, small-scale actions, ostensibly in preparation for making a major push. From 3 to July 13, Rawlinson’s Fourth Army carried out 46 actions which resulted in 35,000 casualties, but no significant advance. In the south, the French 6th Army had progressed as far as 10 km at different points as it had occupied the entire Flaucourt plateau. The French advance was significantly more successful, for they had more guns and faced weaker defences, but were unable to exploit their gains without British backup and had to fall back to earlier positions.
Although by July 14 the British took several German positions, they could not follow through. On July 19, after a break in the attack, the German defence was reorganized, with the southern wing forming a new army, First Army, under Max von Gallwitz, who took complete responsability for the defence. Seven German divisions were used to reinforce the lines at Somme. However, convinced that the enemy was on the verge of exhaustion and that a breakthrough in the German lines was imminent, Sir Douglas Haig maintained the offensive throughout the summer and into November. The British achieved few victories such as Poziere and Mouquet Farm with the help of Australian and Canadian units.
On September 15, the British attack was renewed in the north-east with the Battle of Flers-Courcelette fought by Rawlinson’s Fourth Army. On this assault, tanks were used for the first time in the war. Although they attained a large measure of shocked surprise when they rolled on the German oppositions, these early tanks proved unwieldy and highly unreliable. The British troops were to break through the remaining enemy trench system while the French Sixth Army would attempt to clear the enemy from the British right flank.
|A destroyed British tank. Britain used tanks in the battle of Somme for the first time but of no avail|
Despite the progressive British advance, bad weather conditions and stubborn German resistance brought the Battle of the Somme to an end on November 18, 1916. During the Somme offensive, the British and the French had gained only 12 kilometers. The German lines had not been breached and the Allies were still in French territory. The battle resulted in 1,070,000 casualties on both belligerent sides. The Somme offensive served only to relieve the French at Verdun.
Battle of the Somme: summary
Belligerents. United Kingdom, France, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada against Germany.
Location. Somme, Picardy, France.
Date. July 1 to November 18, 1916.
Strength. Allies: at the beginning 13 British divisions plus 11 French divisions; at the end 50 British divisions plus 48 French divisions. Germany: 50 divisions.
Allied Commanders. British Douglas Haig, French General Ferdinand Foch.
German Commanders: Max von Gallwitz, Fritz von Below.